Learning from the Liturgy: the Easter Vigil

Although Holy Week gets far more attention in popular piety, Easter Week also has a special set of daily services.  For just as the events surrounding Christ’s passion and death require a full week to unpack and explore, so too do the ramifications of his resurrection!

It begins on Saturday night at the Easter Vigil.  This is an ancient liturgy, finding its precedent in the Early Church, perhaps as early as the 200’s.  The Vigil, as described in our Texts for Common Prayer, is held in four parts: the liturgy of light, the liturgy of the word, holy baptism, and holy communion.

The liturgy of light centers on the Paschal Candle.  A “new fire” is lit usually outside the church building, from which the Paschal Candle is lit.  This candle represents the resurrected Christ, and will remain lit in the church until Ascension Day, forty days later (though it is also brought out again throughout the year for Baptisms and Funerals).  It is solemnly blessed with a series of prayers that meditate on various names and titles of Christ Jesus.  Then, slowly, the Candle is carried into the church and to its place near the Altar up front.  From it, other candles are lit, until eventually the entire chapel is lighted by candles; this symbolizes the Light of Christ that is in each of us, yet from the One and same source.  Nature herself, also, mimicks this image, as the first full moon after the Spring Equinox has just arrived, marking the transition from longer dark nights to longer bright days (at least up here in the Northern hemisphere).

After the chapel is fully lit with candles, a long solemn chant called the Exsultet is sung.  This ancient hymn recalls the people to the purpose of the night’s celebration, and invites us to recall the long history of God’s work to save and deliver his people.  This also functions as a transition into the second part of the service: the liturgy of the word.  Where a normal Communion service has one or two readings, with a responsory Psalm and a Gospel reading, the Vigil has up to ten readings before the Gospel.  Most churches opt for perhaps only 4 or 5 of the Old Testament readings, followed by the Epistle (Romans 6:3-11) and Gospel (Matthew 28:1-10).  All of the Old Testament reading options are excellent sources of meditation in preparation for the celebration of the resurrection, however, so I list them here for your own consideration and exploration:

  • Genesis 1:1-2:2
  • Gen. 7:1-5,11-18, 8:8-18, 9:8-13
  • Genesis 22:1-18
  • Exodus 14:10-15:1
  • Isaiah 4:2-6
  • Isaiah 55:1-11
  • Ezekiel 36:24-28
  • Ezekiel 37:1-14
  • Zephaniah 3:12-20

After this, Baptisms are traditionally held, though if there are no candidates for Holy Baptism that night, a Renewal of Baptismal Vows is now customary.  Where a church doesn’t hold an Easter Vigil, the Renewal might be moved to Sunday morning instead (this has been my practice for the past few years, now).

The liturgy of Holy Communion continues with the joyeous ringing of bells and shouts of “alleluia,” as the somber Lenten fast is ended, and the season of Eastertide begins!


About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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